Want to start at the beginning?
“Are you ready?” Mike asked.
Colleen tugged the harness. “As ready as I’ll ever be.”
“You’re sure you know the terms and stuff?”
“Yeah. I went over everything with Gary the other day too. On belay, off belay, carabiner.”
“West Highland Terrier?” Mike asked.
“Yeah him. He’s an outdoorsy type so I asked him to give me a basic intro so when I went over everything with you it wouldn’t be brand new.” She bit her lip. Did he think it was stupid that she’d studied for a date? Did it matter if he thought it was stupid that she’d studied for a date?
“Just remember, don’t look down. And if you get tired tell me. There’s lots of good places to pull off and rest.” He looked up at the rock in front of them. “This is the wall I learned to climb on.”
“When did you learn?” Colleen asked, stalling for time. Rock climbing had sounded perfectly plausible when he asked, slightly intimidating when Gary filled her in on the details, and positively terrifying now that she was standing at the bottom of the cliff face.
“When I was about twelve.” He squeezed her shoulder. “I’ll go first. Watch where I put my hands and feet.” He started scaling the wall. About fifteen feet up he secured himself and called for her.
Nervously, she wedged her toe into the first crack and started her ascent. She focused entirely on where she had seen Mike place himself. The rules kept running over and over in her head. Three points of contact at all times. Don’t look down. Don’t overreach. Don’t assume a hold will hold you until you’ve tested it with your body weight. Before she knew it, she was next to Mike. “I did it.”
He kissed her forehead. “Only fifty more feet to go. Are you tired?”
Colleen looked up. Fifty feet. “No. Not yet any way.”
“Okay, off belay.” He started up the next section while she watched.
She really had to resist looking down. The height wouldn’t scare her, but the lack of progress would. The drive out had been very nice. Mike had joined her at her apartment for breakfast and met Sonya-before-coffee which hadn’t phased him at all. As they drove out he’d pointed out sites of interest and she marveled in the changing landscape. It moved so quickly. From the green Los Angeles Valley to the desert took almost no time. The desert was not quite what the movies had led her to believe. And Mike was so easy to talk to. He had interesting stories from his rescues and didn’t press for details when he asked a question she didn’t want to answer. She gave him the same courtesy. He didn’t like to talk about his heritage or his parents and would only talk about his childhood if it had direct bearing on another part of the conversation.
It sort of left them with her talking about her distant past and him talking about his recent one, but it worked.
“Let’s stop her for a minute.” He helped her up onto a narrow ledge. “Are you sure you’re not tired?”
Colleen wiped sweat from her forehead. “No. Maybe it’ll hit me later. Maybe all that book hefting I’ve been doing is paying off.”
Mike leaned on a rock. “Beautiful country out here.” He unscrewed the cap on his water bottle, staring out over the landscape.
Colleen turned to look and immediately turned away. “We are really high up, aren’t we?”
“You can look out, you just can’t look down.”
“No, I can’t.” She clutched at the rock wall.
Mike drew her into his arms. “It’s alright. I won’t let you fall.”
Colleen could feel herself digging her fingers into his back, trying to get the tightest grip she could. She pressed her face into the hollow of his shoulder and squeezed her eyes closed.
“I won’t let you fall,” Mike murmured. He stroked her hair.
“I’m okay,” she whispered in a voice that was not okay. She shivered, either from the height or the touch, she wasn’t sure.
“Do you want to climb back down? We don’t have to go to the top.”
Colleen turned her head so she could look up at him without having to move away at all. Some feminist she was. “I don’t know. Give me a minute.” She closed her eyes and took a few deep even breaths. “I don’t know what happened. I just looked out and it felt like the whole world had tilted.”
“We can go down from here. It’s no big deal.”
“I’ll feel like a coward if I quit now.” She tried to laugh, but it came out breathy and weak. “Maybe the second look won’t be so bad.”
“I’ll hold onto you.”
Colleen unclenched her fingers from his shirt and twisted around without ever losing contact with his body. She had kept her eyes closed, but now she had to open them. She wouldn’t be able to get down without opening her eyes. Be hind her, she could feel Mike waiting for her reaction. Holding her secure and probably trying to figure out how to get her down the cliff face.
“Mike, it’s beautiful.”
“Huh?” Definitely trying to figure out how to get her down the cliff face.
She looked up at him. Her eyes were shining. “It’s beautiful out here. I had no idea.” She turned back to the view, resting her head against his shoulder. “What’s that bird?”
“Looks like a buzzard.”
“Does that mean there’s something dead there?”
“Maybe. It could have a nest around there too.”
She shook her head. “I had no idea. In the movies the desert is always just sand for miles. Those trees are incredible.”
“Those are Joshua trees. They grow twisted up from the wind.” He leaned his cheek lightly against her head. “Does this mean you want to go to the top?”
“Oh, yes.” She stepped away, eyes still bright. “How far is it to the top now?”
“Only about two more legs.”
She grinned. “Great. What are we waiting for?”
Mike shrugged and rechecked his harness. “Let’s go.”
She stood at the top of the formation looking out over the view. “This is just amazing. I wish I had a camera.” Her knees felt weak, but she attributed that to the adrenaline still working its way out of her system. She glanced back at Mike. He’d perched on a rock within arms’ reach as if he expected her to lunge over the edge. She stepped back and leaned against him. Why was it that he felt more secure than the rocks?
“So you’re glad you made it?”
“I wouldn’t have missed this for the world. You grew up out here?”
“Yeah. That way, about fifty miles.” He gestured west.
“That must have been great. Having all this as your backyard.”
He shrugged. “I guess so.”
“All we could do at home was go caving. That starts to lose its appeal when it’s the same cave you’ve done since you were old enough to get away from your parents.”
“Caving. That sounds cool.”
“Sort of. We never got to go to any really big caves. And some of our caves were really just tapped out coal mines.” Colleen looked across the landscape. He didn’t seem at all freaked out by her panic halfway up. The fact that he wasn’t freaked probably helped her make it the rest of the way. And it was so worth it, leaning back in his arms looking at the most amazing view she’d ever seen in her life. She doubted she’d be able to do justice to it in a letter home. Not that her mother would get far enough past the idea of rock climbing to appreciate the view. “This is wonderful, Mike.”
“You’re pretty wonderful too.”
Colleen looked up and discovered that Mike was watching her. She smiled uncertainly with an awkward flutter behind her breast bone. Nothing at all like the earth moving sensation of finding Dan’s eyes on her, but an entirely different, pleasant sensation. She licked her lips
He studied her mouth with unusual intensity. Then he leaned down and pressed his lips to hers. He was gentle and sweet, cradling her in his arms. Colleen allowed herself to drift in the safety of his arms, enjoying the heat of his mouth on hers.
Reluctantly he shifted away from her, smiling. Not wanting to disturb the moment, Colleen leaned her head in the hollow of his shoulder. She really liked him. Like not feeling like she had to defend herself or prove herself every moment she was with him. But she had to wonder if he was as hands off as he seemed or if he just didn’t care.